No sooner had Ivan Lendl been crowned No. 1 in tennis than along came 18-year-old Boris Becker trying to depose him in the finals of last week's Nabisco Masters. Last year, while Lendl was securing his grip on the top spot, Becker was becoming the standard-bearer of West German yuppies. Three hundred of his well-heeled countrymen flew to New York and trooped into Madison Square Garden to hang banners like D√úSSELDORF HOPES FOR BORIS and shout Ja! whenever he hit a winner.
He didn't hit enough, though, and Lendl refused to be rattled by the spectacular diving volleys Becker did convert. The players went at each other with a fearsome velocity. In fact, no one these days hits the ball harder than these two. Lendl, who didn't drop a set in the tournament, won 6-2, 7-6, 6-3. After the match, Becker called Lendl the game's top player. But Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, demurred. "Lendl may be number one, but John McEnroe is still the best," he said. "Lendl just handles frustration a little better in his head."
McEnroe, who often acted as though he were No. 1 on the tennis courts by divine right, is beginning to look instead like Louis XVI on the eve of Bastille Day. "Everybody's trying to kill the king," says Tiriac. "The moment he weakens, it's off with his head."
Heads at least turned when McEnroe was humiliated last week by Brad Gilbert, who committed the l√®se-majesté of beating him 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 in the first round. In seven previous matches, Gilbert had taken only one set off the defending champ. Never had McEnroe looked so sloppy or preoccupied. Indeed, the state of his game—and of his mind—commanded more attention at the Garden than the daunting play of Lendl.
January 27, 1986
The Masters debacle capped McEnroe's most frustrating and disappointing season, its only bright spot being his romance with Tatum O'Neal. For only the second time since 1978 he didn't win a Grand Slam event. He has lost five of the last six tournaments he has entered. After going virtually unchallenged at the top of the circuit for three years, he lost his No. 1 ranking to Lendl.
At the Australian Open last month, Slobodan Zivojinovic of Yugoslavia upset McEnroe 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, 6-0. Never as a pro had McEnroe been shut out in a final set. The crowd booed him for acting boorish and giving up. "I've seen John play wuff matches," says former pro Mary Carillo, a longtime friend of McEnroe's, "but it was much more disturbing to see him tank one."
Against Gilbert, Mac was like a snapped high-tension wire, flicking sparks in all directions. He started in a funk, and stayed in it despite winning the first set. By the time he was defunct in the third set, he had whined about the electric Cyclops, wailed at the hecklers, given the umpire the bird and spit into the potted azaleas. "You punk." he screamed at Gilbert during a changeover, "you don't belong on the same court with me."
But McEnroe never could put muscle into his meek returns. He's a touch player whose game is built on confidence and precision. He feasts on second serves, but he couldn't exploit Gilbert's patsy ones. Normally, no one hits drop shots with as much disguise as McEnroe, yet he was telegraphing them to Gilbert by Western Union. In the end, McEnroe lashed out at linesman Johnny Sample, a Super Bowl defensive back with the 1969 New York Jets: "You know what it's like playing under this kind of pressure!"
"My attitude is very bad, very negative," McEnroe said after the match. "I'm not as strong mentally as I was, and I'm letting things affect me. I shouldn't be playing now. I'm embarrassed."
McEnroe, who turns 27 next month, is such a tightly clamped spring that he never allows himself a moment of casual laughter or casual pique. He's caught up in a backwash of self-pity. His favorite pastime has become lecturing all who will listen on the unbearable pressures of being John McEnroe. Being No. 1, with a seven-figure income, was only a burdensome duty. He never accepted the quid pro quo of modern celebrity: You sacrifice your private life. "The way people reacted to me and Tatum this past year, things went a lot farther than I thought they would," he says. "Let's put it this way: I never made the National Enquirer before. It's not something I'm proud of."
McEnroe was enraged that the Enquirer called his mother in September to ask about rumors, which turned out to be true, that Tatum was pregnant. Mom didn't know. McEnroe says he planned to tell her on his next trip east. Mac had his own troubles with Tatum's news. He got morning sickness. He spent the next day in bed and pulled out of a tournament for the first time in his career.
A story in the latest Enquirer makes the McEnroes and O'Neals sound like the Capulets and Montagues. The Enquirer claims Ryan O'Neal cares as little for Mac as Kay McEnroe cares for her potential daughter-in-law. McRomeo insists it's all untrue, but something is having an adverse effect on his play.
Increasingly, McEnroe compares himself to Bjorn Borg, who turned his back on tennis at the hoary age of 26. "When I was 26 and John was 22, he couldn't understand how I could just quit," says Borg. "Now he obviously does." But comparisons between the two don't really work. Borg led and is still leading a life of low definition. "Bjorn's idea of a good time before a big tournament was practicing six hours a day and having three straight weeks of room service," says Borg's manager, Bob Kain. "For McEnroe, an hour and a half of practice is considered a major workout."
McEnroe has always sought the limelight, whether he admits it or not. He didn't practice because he didn't have to. When he was on, he seemed to be inventing a new game. Actually playing out the matches became a formality. He figured his awesome talent was an inexhaustible resource. Now he finds himself coming up short. "Instead of trying to push myself farther, I just sat back and stayed the same," he says.
"John's got a persecution complex," says Kain. "He thinks the world is against him and everything has fallen on his shoulders." His attitude also suggests he's the only tennis player ever to suffer the indignities of a prying press. At one time or another the media have been at least as interested in the private lives of Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd.
McEnroe talks about taking a rest or even quitting. But that last part is apparently only talk, for he also says, "As long as I have ambition, I'm not going to quit."
While McEnroe has been sitting back, Lendl has followed a rigid regimen of diet and exercise and has passed him. And younger players like Becker are marshaling their talents. If McEnroe is looking for a challenge to motivate himself, he need look no farther.